COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (2): Muslim-Christian Enmity

2nd of 10 parts

Let us begin by posing an uncomfortable question:  does there still exist a deep-seated enmity, perhaps below the level of consciousness, visceral, instinctive, but real nevertheless between Christians and Muslims, which colors relationships and makes it difficult to achieve a real understanding between adherents of the two faiths?

The historian Rudy Rodil, born and raised in Mindanao, spent time in Jolo as a college instructor, has lived and worked closely all his life with Muslims and Lumads, raised this question in 2010.  In an article he wrote for MindaNews and which was published on August 3 of that year, he asked why there was vehement opposition to the use of the term “Muslim Mindanao” in the deliberations of the Regional Consultative Commission which drafted the Organic Act for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or to the creation of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development, or to the GRP-MILF MOA-AD.  Rodil concluded that

“…one highlight of the relationship between Moros and the Pinoys from the North is mutual rejection, many times this is called prejudice, the seed had been sown and nurtured over many years.  Now, we are harvesting the whirlwind.”
(Rudy Buhay Rodil, “ANGAY-ANGAY LANG: Lakas ng Loob Makipag-isa”, MindaNews, April 4, 2010)

The seed that had been sown was the experience of Muslims of the southern Philippines fighting the Spanish, American and Philippine Republic colonizers, all eager to subjugate the Moros to their rule, over a period of more than 400 years; wars of subjugation that pitted Christian Filipino soldiers against Muslim warriors.  From the perspective of the Filipino Christians the enemy was the Moro, who would launch piratical raids against coastal communities in the Visayas and even as far north as Ilocos Sur in Luzon, killing and pillaging and capturing inhabitants to be used as slaves both in the Moro communities such as in Jolo as well as sold in the thriving slave markets in the region. From the perspective of the Muslims the enemy was the Christian Filipino, the Bisaya (as Tausugs would say, not referring to the inhabitants of the Visayas region but using the term generically to refer to Christian Filipinos).  These were the soldiers used by the Spanish and American colonial powers in their wars against the Moros.  They were as well the settlers coming from Luzon and the Visayas, organized by these colonial powers and even by the Philippine Republic later on, taking over lands in Mindanao and transforming the Moros (and the Lumads as well) into minorities in what the latter deemed to be their homeland.

The prejudice on the part of Christians was documented in a survey undertaken in 2005 by the Human Development Network, part of the United Nations Development Programme, which attempted to determine to what extent biases existed among Christian Filipinos towards Muslims in the country.  In brief, the survey found the following:

  1. Although only 14 per cent of respondents admitted to having had direct dealings with Muslims, more than a third (33-39 per cent) exhibited a bias toward Muslims based on their responses to various survey questions;
  2. A very large percentage (47 per cent) expressed the belief that Muslims are likely to be terrorists or extremists;
  3. A majority (55 per cent) expressed the stereotypical view of Muslims being prone to run amok;
  4. Significant portions (over 40 per cent) would outright choose a person with a Christian name rather than a Muslim name when choosing a worker or employee, and a boarder or tenant.
  5. A significant portion (40 per cent) would choose to reside in an area distant from a Muslim community even if the rent were higher rather than live in a cheaper area that would be close to a Muslim community. [“Philippine Human Development Report 2005: Peace, Human Security and Human Development in the Philippines”, (Human Development Network, 2005)]

It should be pointed out, though, that the survey also showed that to many people the matter of religious beliefs was not a factor in choosing a place of residence, an employee or a tenant.  Nevertheless, the survey did reveal that a significant portion of the population continued to exhibit signs of bias when it came to Muslim Filipinos.  Who among Christian Filipinos has not heard the popular phrase, initially popularized by the American colonizers, “A good Moro is a dead Moro”?

Because of the experience of Moros fighting colonizers, generations of Tausug warriors have passed down to their descendants the following saying:  “Marayaw pa kaw makabunuh Bisayah, makasud kaw ha sulgah” (It is better for you to kill a Christian, you will be able to enter heaven).  In recent times this has been reinforced by the Salafi-Wahhabi perspective of intolerance which provides a justification for jihad against kuffar (unbelievers), particularly in “Defense of Muslim Lands”, in the words of Abdullah Azzam, dubbed the Father of Global Jihad, the mentor of Osama bin Laden and from whom Abdurajak Janjalani borrowed extensively in his khutbas on Jihad.  That precisely, from the perspective of Moros, is what they are doing, defending their homeland from the encroachment of Christian settlers who have been exploiting their resources.

It is true that there have been many efforts over the past several decades to try and bridge this gap between Muslims and Christians.  Inter-faith dialogues have been held since the late 1960s in an effort to foster understanding between Christians and Muslims.  Rodil describes, for example, the Lanao Muslim-Christian Movement for Dialogue, set up in 1972 in response to attempts by some groups to sow discord between Muslims and Christians in the Lanao area.  This eventually led to the establishment of the Bishops-Ulama Forum, later renamed the Bishops-Ulama Conference, established in 1996.  Other similar groups were set up like the Silsilah Dialogue Movement, established in 1984 and based in Zamboanga City, which promotes dialogue between Muslims and Christians. [B. R. Rodil, “Kalinaw Mindanaw: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Process, 1972-1996”, (Davao City: Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao, 2000]. Many other initiatives have been taken, like the establishment of Peace Zones, the promotion of peace education programs, all aimed at fostering understanding and reconciliation.

As a result, there are many Muslims and Christians who no longer harbor this enmity, who live and work with each other.  This writer, for example, counts among his closest “brothers”, not just friends, Muslims of the Tausug and Yakan tribes.  We have lived in each other’s homes, shared meals, supported each other in times of difficulty and gone through periods of danger together.

But despite all these efforts of Muslims and Christians alike reaching out to each other, are there still sufficient numbers that carry this hatred within themselves to still make this an issue which stands in the way of reconciliation and openness which would lead to acceptance and a willingness to live side-by-side?  Do many Filipino Christians feel an instinctive distrust of Muslims not only because of the history of war between the two nations but particularly because of the acts of violence that have taken place in recent years – the bombing of the Davao City night market in September of last year, the barbarous beheading of eight kidnap victims over the past two years, the history of kidnappings, bombings, assassinations carried out by the Abu Sayyaf over the last 26 years?  Do Muslims feel like second-class citizens in this predominantly Christian nation, causing deep-seated resentment?  Do they feel that they are being neglected after experiencing the levels of poverty and the absence of basic social services in their communities?

These are questions we, Muslims and Christians alike, need to ask ourselves and answer truthfully if we are to address the condition of violence that currently prevails in the ARMM provinces.

TOMORROW: Radicalization of Outlook

[Vic M. Taylor, originally from Cebu, has been involved in various peace and development activities in Mindanao, particularly in Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa) in the different positions he has held in government and the private sector over the last 50 years.
He started as an instructor at the Notre Dame of Jolo College after his graduation from the Ateneo de Manila University in the late 1960s.  Subsequently, he oversaw the Rehabilitation and Development Program for Muslim Mindanao during the early years of martial law under the Office of the President.
Within the last 16 years and upon the request of the families of some kidnap victims, Mr. Taylor assisted these families to help secure the safe release of five victims from the ASG.
Recently, he has been working with a private group that is assisting a community of the Moro National Liberation Front in the Zamboanga peninsula in bringing development projects to their area.
This series is a revised version of a paper written by the author for the Mackenzie Institute, a Canadian security think tank, in light of the execution of two Canadian hostages by the Abu Sayyaf last year]